A Tale of Two Dentists

For this series, the WSP counselors were asked to interview an older family member with a childhood experience different than their own. These pieces focus on the family member’s past, particularly his or her goals or aspirations. The purpose of this assignment was to get the counselors to engage with an important family member and to learn more about themselves and their family history in the process.

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I interviewed two people: my mom and my dad. I couldn’t choose just one of my parents to interview because both are so important to me and my history. Born and raised in Korea, they have very different childhood experiences from mine. My mom is from Daegu and my dad grew up in Seoul. They met in Yonsei University’s dental school as my mom was studying to become an oral surgeon and my dad a prosthodontist, and they were members of the photography club there. They married, had my brother and then me, and we all ended up coming to America. These are their stories…

Mom

Q: Where did you live when you were young?

My mom was born in a house in the middle of a huge market street in the city of Daegu. She lived there throughout her elementary and middle school years until her family moved to an apartment high-rise in a wealthier area of the city as she started high school.

Q: What was it like to live there?

No one was really rich, but that didn’t mean people weren’t making a living. There were a lot of small businesses and stores and street vendors on the street where she grew up, and she had to pass by them to get home from school. The vendors at some shops next to her house sold oil and vegetables from a local farm. Her family sold tobacco, which meant they got a lot of business. When her mother (my grandmother) had to leave for a bit, she would have my mom watch the store because her older siblings were at school. She said, “I sold cigarettes before I learned how to count.” I can imagine my mom as a toddler, candy in mouth, sitting up on the counter holding out a pack of cigarettes in one hand and holding out her other hand to demand money.

Because her family owned a cigarette shop, her family was relatively well-off in comparison to other locals. But it was still important to not waste anything, and she remembered being hit by my grandma if she left food on her plate. People in her neighborhood lived day-to-day; income earned one day was spent the same day to buy food. Because of this lifestyle, money was a big deal. If someone didn’t pay enough or overcharged or if a similar business popped up somewhere nearby, they fought. For a young girl, it was loud and lively and exciting, and sometimes, scary. She had a lot of fun in the market talking to people and playing with other children, but she also recalled being scared of the drunk people at a tavern near her house.

Q: What was your dream as a child? What kind of adult did you see yourself becoming?

Because she lived in a neighborhood where people would argue over the difference of a few pennies, my mom never really thought about dreams. She remembered thinking as a child that the people she saw were lively but not completely happy. Was it that hard to eat and to live? she wondered. While now, as an adult, she believes the market street people simply lived their lives to the fullest, the seed of a vague wish formed in that place – a desire to make a world where people wouldn’t fight anymore.

In high school, she moved with her family into a high-rise apartment in a more urbanized part of Daegu. Finally, she could live in a “normal” environment: not as loud, less drunkards wandering the streets, cleaner. Her new school provided a great new opportunity for her to grow. For the first time, she was challenged to dream about her future – and she was in an environment that encouraged her to explore her dreams. She discovered she liked science because it was practical, and it seemed like the best way to solve real problems in the world. She believed that conflict arose because people had too much work but not enough food. So, she pursued her path as an inventor or engineer who could create inventions that helped people.

My mom never did become an engineer. She went on to study oral surgery at Yonsei University College of Dentistry where she met my dad. She juggled being a wife and a mother of two young children while trying to complete her residency program which she eventually dropped to care for her kids. But she never gave up on her dream of becoming an inventor who helps people. She is always creating – whether it is a new recipe, a dental assistant training program, a vegetable garden, or an exercise method – and, through this, she has helped everyone around her.

Dad

Q: What is the first thing you can remember when you think of your childhood?

Rather than a specific memory of an event, the first thing my dad could recall about his childhood was his desire to build robots. For as long as he could remember, my dad wanted to become robot-making engineer. He was crazy about robots and it was his dream. He loved watching a children’s TV show that featured a cartoon robot. He tinkered with lightbulbs, model airplanes and cars, and later, with home computers. He wanted to one day build a rocket and ride it as an astronaut. I found it extraordinary that he could recall his passion so clearly when I couldn’t remember if there was something that I had ever wanted to be.

Q: What kind of place did you grow up in?

My dad grew up in a small house in an alley in a small neighborhood in Seoul. He lived with two older siblings, a sister and a brother, his mother, and his father who was a civil engineer. In elementary school, he lived rather well. He was popular, he had a lot of friends, he did well at games like top spinning and flip the ddakji, and he was good at sports. He was on the school soccer team as a fullback. He bragged that he was the star because he could kick the ball really far, and his team won everything because of him.

In middle school, he moved to Gangnam, leaving behind all his friends. He felt out of place in Gangnam because he was not used to apartment culture. He called it the not-so-fun “Black Age”. As the new kid in school, he did not have many friends and was bullied by older kids in the neighborhood. He also gained a lot of weight from eating ramen all the time. I sympathized with my dad when he talked about his pains in middle school; I moved many times in my own childhood, and while I was never bullied, I am no stranger to the struggles of adjusting to a new neighborhood.

Q: What happened after middle school?

High school proved much better for my dad. He made good friends and lost the weight he had gained in middle school. He went hiking often and he once toured all of South Korea on foot with his friends. Even now, my dad loves walking and he has taken the family on trails across the United States numerous times.

However, my dad never became an engineer, either. Instead, he went to dental school at Yonsei University, just like my mom did, and became a prosthodontist, or a dentist that specializes in implants. He didn’t pursue his dream job of building rockets and robots because his father was deeply against my dad’s desire to become an engineer. According to my grandpa, engineers had a hard, thankless job with long hours away from family and a dangerous workplace. It would be better for my dad to pursue something in the health professions. My uncle had chosen to practice medicine, which didn’t seem appealing to my dad, so he chose dentistry.

Closing Thoughts

This was not the first time I had asked my parents about their lives in Korea, so I had already known a part of the story. But I had never conducted a formal interview with them, and I learned so much more than what I had assumed about my parents. I got to know them better as not just the mom and dad I knew, but as people with their own pasts and their own decisions that had led them to where they were now. I wonder what would have happened if my parents had both followed their childhood dreams. Would they have gone to the same engineering school? Would they still have met and fallen in love and had us? What kind of life would they be living?

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